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Israel Drazin
Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about Judah – Part One

The unclear stories about Judah are significant because Jewish and Christian theology contend that the messiah will be a descendant of this fourth son of Jacob. What if anything did Judah do to merit this distinction? We will address this question and point out many obscurities in Genesis 37 and 38. We will address other obscurities in chapters 39 and others in the next essay. 

  • King David’s ancestors and descendants performed immoral acts that are contrary to Torah law. Lot, Abraham’s nephew had sex with his daughters, one of whom had a son who was the founder, according to the Torah, of the Moabites. The Moabites who were considered a despicable nation who the Torah states may not join Israel. Ruth was a Moabite and the ancestress of David. Judah married a Canaanite woman whom his grandparents Isaac and Rebekah strongly frowned upon and which even caused Esau to marry another woman. Later he had sex with a woman he thought was a prostitute and had a child by her who became the ancestor of King David and, according to tradition, the messiah. David both committed adultery and had her husband killed. The daughter of the wicked queen of the northern country Jezebel married the king of the southern country Judea and killed many people in order to retain the throne of Judea and was the ancestress of the Judean kings who followed her to the throne.
  • Maimonides says in his Laws of Kings: The messiah will be a normal human, a man who will die in old age, just as all humans. “Don’t think that the messianic king must perform miracles and wonders, bring new things into being, revive the dead, or perform similar feats as foolish people believe…. Don’t think that in the messianic age things will be different or that the laws of nature will change. To the contrary, the world will continue in its usual way…. The verses (from Isaiah) are parables…symbols that stand for what they represent.” Maimonides goes on to say that the only difference between the current era and the messianic age is that Jewish subjugation to foreign rule will end. The messianic age will be a period of peace on earth.
  • Is it possible that the Bible tells us about the many failings of King David’s family before and after he was born to emphasize that we are human and make mistakes, some very bad, but can still rise, improve, be better ourselves, and better society?
  • Judah was Jacob’s wife Leah’s fourth son. When he was born, she said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” The Hebrew word for “praise” is With this in mind, she called her son Judah, which is Yehudah in Hebrew, hodah preceded by a shortened version for “God” in the beginning. Why does Leah wait until the fourth child, “This time,” to thank God?
  • When seventeen-year-old Joseph was captured by his older brothers in Genesis 37, the brothers other than Reuben and Judah wanted to kill him. Ruben stalling for time suggested that they place him in a pit, hoping to save him at a later time. The brothers put him in a pit. When Ruben left for an unknown reason, Judah suggested to his brothers that there was no profit in killing Joseph, “let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.” The brothers agreed. It is unclear whether Judah said what he did to save Joseph’s life as Ruben did, but still wanted him gone. If the latter, this would be a black mark against him.
  • Meanwhile, Midianite merchants came. And they lifted Joseph out of the pit and sold Joseph to Ishmaelites and they brought Joseph to Egypt. And the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s guard. This stage of the event is unclear and both rabbis and scholars offered different interpretations. One problem is that there is a mixture of Midianites and Ishmaelites. The Midianites “came” and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Yet, although the Ishmaelites now had Joseph, the text says the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt. There are scholars who say that the text that we have is a mixture of two traditions. In one, the Midianites took and sold Joseph. No Ishmaelites were involved. In the other, everything was done by the Ishmaelites. A second problem is that the text says “they” took Joseph from the pit. The “they” could refer to the foreigners or the brothers. Opinions differ. If it was the brothers who drew Joseph from the pit and sold him, this is another black mark against all the brother, including Judah.
  • So ends chapter 37 which is not continued until chapter 39. It is interrupted by chapter 38 which has nothing to do with the Joseph drama. It is a story about Judah. Why is it placed in the middle of an entirely different tale? Is it a mistake by the compilers of the Torah as maintained by critical scholars? Or is the placement suggesting that we should compare the two stories and doing so will yield insights? If so, what are these insights?
  • Chapter 38 starts by telling us that “at that time, Judah went down from his brothers.” Rashi, relying on imaginative midrashim, interprets Judah’s descent both figuratively and practically. He left home because when his brothers saw their father’s pain when he accepted their lie that Joseph was killed by a wild beast, they blamed Judah for causing their dad’s pain since he suggested placing Joseph in a pit. It is instructive to compare their reaction of criticizing another for their error with Judah’s reaction at the end of chapter 38. The brothers’ behavior is typical of politicians past and present of refusing to admit wrongs and accusing others, such as their predecessor, for the mistake. In verse 26, he acts morally. As translated by Nachmanides and Rashbam, he ignored the surety that people would mock him. He said, “She (Tamar) is right. She is more righteous than I!” In taking this unusual moral stand, Judah changed and never showed moral failings again.
  • The Bible commentator Sforno maintains that God punished Judah for causing his father pain by causing him similar pain by killing his two oldest sons. Does this make sense? Is this how we like to think of God?
  • Judah’s sons mature and the oldest marries Tamar. Her ancestry is not mentioned. It appears from the text that she is a Canaanite. As with Judah’s wife, the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 85:10 refusing to accept that the ancestor of the Davidic dynasty was a Canaanite, with no biblical support, maintains she was the daughter of Noah’s son Shem.
  • Verse 9 states that Judah’s son engaged in coitus interruptus, not allowing his sperm to enter Tamar, and God killed him for this deed. Judah’s second son married her according to the custom of the time, and did the same, with the same result. Wasn’t the punishment overly harsh?
  • Judah did not allow his third son to marry Tamar. He gave an excuse that the boy was too young at present. Commentators have various ideas why Judah acted as he did.
  • Time passed and Judah did not bring his third son to Tamar. She decides to have sex and a child with Judah himself. She disguises herself as a prostitute. He has sex with her. She gives birth to a son. Wasn’t prostitution wrong? Maimonides says in his Hilchot Ishut 1:4 that it was not prohibited during the time of the patriarchs. But what prompted Judah to have sex with a prostitute? The Midrash Genesis Rabbah 85:8 posits that God coerced Judah despite his moral feelings to stop and have sex with the woman he thought was a prostitute. Is this reasonable?
  • When it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, Judah sentenced her to be burned. Scripture does not inform us why she would be killed for prostitution when the act was permitted. Nor does it say why she was sentenced to such a harsh death. Additionally, it is silent in regard to why did Judah have the power to sentence her.
  • Tamar proves that Judah is the father of her child and, as previously stated, he admits it. She is not killed. Why is she not killed? How does the revelation that she had sex with Judah change her guilt?
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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